Television Has Come A Long, Long Way — Part Ii


Last week I said that many people who are alive today have no idea how blessed lucky we are to be able to buy a television set, take it home, plug it in, hook up cable or dish, turn it on, and watch just about anything we want.

Sure wasn’t like that at first.

And the sets? Oh, my! You just can’t imagine.

If I gave a teenager one of those things we had, turned it on, tuned it in, and got the picture we used to get, he would pick it up, carry it outside, drop it in the trash, and go read a book.

Maybe even a textbook.

See if you can guess the size of the picture on the TV set I had back in 1954. A wooden console, it was 4 feet tall, 30 inches wide, and 30 inches deep. So what size picture would you expect?

Tell you the answer in a minute.

I’ll say one thing: that set certainly got good reception. It was fed by an antenna that was famous in its day — a Channelmaster Champion sitting high atop my roof on a 20-foot steel mast. I lived on a hill or it would have been higher. How high? Well, back in New London, 40 feet was not rare, and I knew of one tower that was over 100 feet tall.

That Channelmaster Champion looked for all the world like a radar antenna.

Dozens of thin aluminum bars were riveted together at right angles to form a 6-foot-wide, 6-foot-high panel. Mounted in front of the panel, which reflected the signal, was a receiving head very much like the head in your dish if you have one.

The antenna was mounted atop a large electric motor used to rotate it a full 360 degrees. Wires ran up and down the mast, carrying power, TV signal, and controls for the motor.

Sitting on my TV set was a control box. A mechanical pointer showed which way the antenna faced. A spring-loaded control knob rotated the antenna when you twisted it left or right.

What did we do with all this high-tech stuff? First we tuned the television set to one of the three stations we could get. Then we ran the control box to rotate the antenna on the roof, stopping when it faced the direction that gave the best picture.

A lot of work? Sure. But the set had a good picture. A good one, but not a very large one.

How large? Ready for this? It was — I swear — a 3-inch screen.

Tell you what, Johnny. Tear a 3x5 card in half. Draw a stick man on it. Take it across the room and tack it to the wall. Walk back across the room and look at it. Then imagine us poor fools watching a picture that size.

Think of a baseball game, for example. Picture the size of the batter. Or the ball. Read on when you get done laughing.

I once ran into an odd problem with a set. It was fairly new but it began getting dimmer and dimmer each evening as we watched. It took a while, but I finally found out why. Two reasons: One was that the brightness and contrast depended on the voltage the picture tube was getting. The other was that I lived in a trailer park where the voltage dropped steadily downward every evening.

So I bought a variable transformer with a click switch on top that let me increase the voltage to the TV set. Worked fine. The line voltage would drop. Up a click I would go. Another drop. Up another click. Drop, click. Drop, click. All evening.

But let me warn you. Do not go to sleep one night, shut everything off, and forget to reset the transformer before you turn on the television set the next day.

My! My! Just like 4th of July!

We watched a hard-fought battle in Washington back in the 1950s.

Color sets were just coming in. Two standards were vying for approval by the feds. One of them used a cathode ray tube with three separate guns in it, one for each color. The other used just one gun, but had a whirling disk in front of the picture tube that had red, yellow and blue plastic in it.

NASA still uses the spinning disk method by the way, but as you know, the three-gun tube won out for commercial use.

It’s not hard to see why. The spinning disk has to be at least twice the height of the screen. So-o-o-o. For a modest — say — 21-inch screen you would need a 5-foot diameter disk spinning in front of the set — at 65 rpm. And for a 36-inch screen you would need a 7-foot-high spinning disk. Right in your living room. In front of the TV set!

Would I hate to be around if that thing came loose.

Run for the hills! The TV broke!

Makes you wonder what people are thinking about sometimes.

I wondered what someone was thinking about when the military expanded its radio service to include television.

AFRS, the Armed Forces Radio Service, was great. Kept overseas GIs overseas in touch with home. But then came television, and some dummy in the Pentagon named the new improved network the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, AFRTS.

Can you imagine the fun GIs had with that acronym?

Move the letters around, Johnny. Move the letters around.

Anyway, television has come a long way. Back when it was all live — no chance to edit anything — TV was funniest when it was trying hardest to be serious. Comedy programs could put you to sleep faster than a sleeping pill, but the unplanned stuff?

Live radio made mistakes too. Picture staid newsman Edward R. Murrow calling British Sir Stafford Cripps, “Sir Stifford Craps.” But TV topped that.

Walter Cronkite once aired a re-enactment of the fall of the Alamo. At its end, a wall was supposed to fall on one of the heroes in a tear-provoking touch of irony. Trouble is the wall refused to fall. And kept on refusing until a stage hand — his foot plainly visible on the screens of millions of viewers — kicked the %$#@! foam plastic thing down on top of the actor.

And so the nation rolled around on the floor as the Alamo fell and Cronkite followed up with, “And that’s the way it was ...”

Yes, things were just a wee bit different back then.


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